The “Woke Theology” Breaking Point

With issues of racism, white supremacy, and police brutality flooding our newsfeeds, with renewed calls to remove Confederate monuments and take down the statues of slave owners, and with books like DiAngelo’s White Fragility and Kendi’s How to Be An Antiracist topping the bestseller lists, the “woke movement” has come to dominate our public discourse. Understood descriptively -not pejoratively- the “woke movement” is a grass-roots social campaign to overturn unjust systems and structures based on racism, sexism, classism, and other forms of oppression, as oppression is understood within the context of contemporary critical theory. While it aspires to noble goals, like the eradication of injustice, many commentators have expressed concerns at the growing fanaticism, intolerance, and even violence we see being expressed on- and off-line by some devotees of Social Justice.

Against this backdrop, James Lindsay, a left-of-center agnostic and co-author of the upcoming book Cynical Theories with Helen Pluckrose, wrote a fascinating article on the need for secular people to determine their “woke breaking point.” He mused:

It struck me that many of the people in my life who remain sympathetic or outright denialist about the excesses of the Woke (Critical Social Justice) movement haven’t grappled with the possibility that it isn’t quite the noble and necessary cause that it sells itself to be. What I realized is how very helpful it is for people, rather than becoming confrontational, to encourage their Woke-sympathetic friends to start identifying and naming what their non-negotiable lines will be… Whose statue has to come down? Seriously, whose is the last straw? Abraham Lincoln? Martin Luther King, Jr.? Whose? What freedom has to be stripped? Due process of law? Speech? The right not to suffer cruel and unusual punishment?…When is enough, enough? Who has to get cancelled? Fired? How many people have to lose their livelihoods?

As a Christian who is concerned about the inroads that contemporary critical theory is making within evangelicalism, I have similar questions for fellow evangelicals who are sympathetic to the “woke movement” and see it as a necessary step towards biblical justice. I’d like to ask them: what would it take to convince you that the “woke movement” is a real threat to evangelical theology? In other words, what would convince you that theological concerns about contemporary critical theory are not just the paranoid fever dreams of a handful of racist, misogynistic, right-wing discernment bloggers who want to Make America Great Again but instead accurately characterize a deep ideological conflict?

This question is made difficult by the fact that conservative evangelicals are likely to concede that the “woke movement” as a whole is non-Christian. Evangelicals will repudiate racism, but will not usually affirm with Kendi that “We cannot be antiracist if we are homophobic or transphobic.” Evangelicals will deplore police brutality but are unlikely to argue that we should abolish the police entirely. Evangelicals will abhor sexism, but will usually not insist that abortion is a “women’s rights” issue. Consequently, it will be easier for evangelicals to dismiss the excesses of “woke” activism as obvious deviations from their own beliefs.

If I were sympathetic to the woke movement, I would say: “Obviously, I don’t support violence or ruining someone’s life over a decade-old Tweet. I simply believe that our society’s embrace of individualism, materialism, racism, and nationalism has severely warped the theology of white evangelicalism. What people are calling ‘cultural Marxism’ is really just the biblical injunction to care for the poor and oppressed. What we’re seeing is a needed and helpful correction, not a dangerous new worldview.”

Given this response, I’d like to suggest three areas in which woke-sympathetic evangelicals can try to identify a breaking point. A point at which they’ll step back and say “ok, I need to reevaluate what’s going on because what I’m seeing is genuinely troubling.”

Public figures

First, think about deeply orthodox public Christians you admire -pastors, authors, seminary professors, speakers, philanthropists, podcasters, musicians- who you believe are unfairly accused of being “woke” or “cultural Marxists” or “social justice warriors.” I can personally come up with such a list of people whom I respect and whom I think have been slandered. The first woke breaking point question should be: if one of these figures begins to express unorthodox beliefs, will I be troubled?

If one of these men or women begins to waver on the relationship between law and gospel, or on a biblical understanding of gender or sexuality, or on the inerrancy of Scripture, or on the exclusivity of Christ, will I be alarmed? If they start recommending books by more and more theologically progressive authors or start sharing a platform with people I’m uncomfortable with, will there be cause for concern? If I notice a drift towards theological liberalism creeping into their theology, will it be time to ask where it’s coming from?

Your local church

Second, think about your own church, your own pastor, and your own community. Ask similar questions: I know we’re committed to social justice, but how many heterodox statements need to be made from the pulpit before I conclude we have a problem? How many local church leaders have to begin reading and recommending books that I know are dangerous before I conclude that the problem is not just “out there,” but also “in here”? How many members have to leave my church for a more progressive denomination? How many Christian friendships do I have to see dissolve because one party wasn’t sufficiently woke? When do I begin to see a harmful ideological influence at work?

Your intellectual life

Finally, think about your own internal attitudes and thought-life. Ask: Do I find myself beginning to monitor my own reasoning, worried when a certain train of thought heads in a forbidden direction? Do I find myself increasingly fearful not only of expressing an unpopular idea that I think is true, but of even believing the idea? Do I find myself dismissing any pushback, even if it’s grounded in reason and Scripture, as being “motivated by racism” or “providing cover to white supremacy”? Do I keep a mental list of authors whose works are prohibited, whom I just know are wrong even though I haven’t read them and don’t know what they actually say? Do I just know that certain claims are false even though I can’t exactly explain why?

At what point do these internal dynamics become troubling? At what point do I realize that a commitment to social action is looking more and more like a set of almost religious dogmas, in the worst sense of the word? (If you find yourself surprised that a conservative evangelical is making such comments, see here).

Retracing our steps

None of the questions I’ve asked here should be applied to the “woke movement” alone. We should be asking ourselves the same questions about any popular cultural, political, or social movement, whether it’s Trumpism, or veganism, or Objectivism, or environmentalism. All of us should recognize that, as Christians, we must constantly test our beliefs against Scripture and ask whether our political ideology or our social activism or our economic philosophy has usurped the allegiance in our hearts that only God should command.

If we affirm, at least in principle, that the Social Justice Movement can become an idol, we need to draw a clear line in the sand and ask when it has been crossed. I say this to every social justice warrior, to every Trump supporter, to every fan of Ayn Rand, to every conservative, and to every liberal: we dare not drift aimlessly, eyes closed, wherever the currents of the culture take us. Instead, we should always be willing to listen to those with whom we disagree and examine our beliefs in the light of Scripture.

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